Hazen to Offer Middle Schoolers Computer Coding Instruction

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – Starting this fall, Hazen Union will offer middle-schoolers computer coding instruction through Amazon’s Future Engineer curriculum. The program will be funded by a grant from Amazon.

The middle school course will be taught by middle school science teacher Arne Hagman. Principal Jason Di Giulio said Hazen’s goal is to start building a technologically oriented pathway for students, with the Amazon program as a first step. The school is also hoping in the future to hire a teacher trained in Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles who would provide computer science training for juniors and seniors, as well as using code.org‘s curriculum for tenth graders. 

Amazon describes the curriculum that Hazen will be using part of as “a comprehensive childhood-to-career program aimed at increasing access to computer science education for children and young adults from underserved and underrepresented communities.”

Di Giulio said that the program was developed by Amazon because it was having trouble finding coders to hire.

“In order to secure their business in the the future, [Amazon needed] to grow more STEM-oriented [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] students and graduates.”

A key focus of the program is “algorithmic problem-solving,” which is a problem-solving strategy that teaches students a different approach to problem solving.

“It’s thinking algorithmically, and experimentally, rather than linearly,” said Di Giulio. “Amazon, and other computer science companies, have found that when we approach problems using only seven problem-solving steps, like we’re traditionally trained, it doesn’t allow us to extemporize, think

entrepreneurially, or to think like a coder.”

He said that students who learn this skillset will “open [themselves] up to thinking outside the box, like there are

many solutions to a problem, and the one [to] select is the one that works the most elegantly or efficiently.”

Students graduating from schools that lack computer science education are at “a significant disadvantage,” said Di Giulio. While this program is just the first step of many the school hopes to make in coming years, “by giving students a middle-school introduction to coding, we’re hoping to take care of a bit of that [problem].”

He said, “We’re looking at [in] maybe three to five years, having a good, solid, computer science pathway for students that would elect to do that.”

Di Giulio said that offering this course at the middle school level might turn some students on to computer science. But, even if a kid were to find that this path isn’t for them, the new knowledge gained about problem-solving strategies would be beneficial. “If they don’t like it, that’s fine. But at least they’re exposed to how to think through a problem a little differently.”

Di Giulio said the school began looking into a “grant opportunity” last fall, though that opportunity is not like a traditional grant. Amazon provided a grant so the school could get its curriculum and teacher training, and there was no dollar amount put on it. Di Giulio estimated, based on experience, that the dollar value

for this sort of programming would be somewhere between $6,000 and $8,000.

“We applied [last fall], and because we’re a semi-rural school in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, we were able to win the grant. It’s not a massive grant, but it’s a perfect one,”

The exact way the program will be structured has not yet been determined. Di Giulio said the school is deciding whether to offer it as a more intensive, semester-long course or split the curriculum between two semesters.